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Published: February 18th 2012
India...at last! For some time, this country had been somewhat of a ‘forbidden fruit’ for Amy and I; a mirage on the horizon only to be viewed from afar but never satisfactorily experienced in any meaningful way. For quite some time, it has been at the head of our list of countries we would endeavour to visit; from its diversity of both landscape and culture to the taste of the food and the sheer sensual shock of what awaits; it has enticed and tormented in all manner of ways. Approximately ten months ago we were all set to go, to finally experience this land to which many a thought had wandered. As our passports will attest, our visas held all the official statements and signatures for our arrival from China. But, as those who have followed this blog know, we were denied such a chance as Amy required surgery back in England and so we returned home, deflated and uncertain of our adventure ahead. It was around this time that Amy and I remarked how, not only did the prospect of India seem so far away, but the possibility of us even going there on this trip came under serious threat,
given the timing of our former plan.
Given the natural forces at work on the great sub-continent, visiting this country at the wrong time can cause ‘complications’ to say the least, what with monstrous rainfall during the monsoon and inferno-like heat during the hot season, it seemed our timing was now off! However, India’s lure was simply too strong so, sometime during our stay in Cambodia, we determined to cut out Australia and New Zealand from our itinerary, a decision not easily happened upon, in favour of going to India during a decent climate and even squeezing Burma and Nepal into our plans for good measure! Thus far, we have been rewarded with an amazing stay in Burma...next in line was perhaps the biggest melting pot of culture anywhere in the world.
During our single day in Bangkok, I don’t feel embarrassment in admitting a little hesitation began to creep into the recesses of my mind. Of course we were tremendously excited for what we were about to embark upon – it is also the first travelling we have undertook away from the South- and Far-East Asia, which had become somewhat of a security blanket for us. But,
there was something nagging away at me, the type of thing that causes the foot to tap absent of musical influence. To a certain extent, wherever you travel a person tends to happen across the unexpected and thus has to tackle the situation accordingly, a skill at which we have become quite accomplished! However, in anticipation of India, I sat in a Bangkok cafe and it suddenly dawned on me – the irony of India is that for all the pros of going, you could equally transfer the same list into the cons and many would still apply! Put simply, it’s one thing to expect the unexpected but when it comes to India, it’s all to be expected, and that becomes a little daunting!
A concentrated assault on the senses is what awaits you in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), for those daring enough to put aside any preconceptions of this city. We had no sooner left the grounds of the airport and we were catapulted straight into a swarm of chaos – rickshaws, Royal Enfield’s and bicycles frantically weaving their way through the countless decorative buses and clunky, yellow Ambassador Classic taxi’s, all moving to the soundtrack of
the beeping horn and all collectively attempting to avoid whatever human traffic or cattle (!) happened to be in the middle of the dusty, filthy road! All this activity took place amid four and five storey buildings crumbling around us, left to rot and decay much like the garbage that lines the roadsides wherever you ride, providing a resource for city scavengers, both human and canine alike.
As we neared our destination, seductive smells of Bengali cuisine drifted our way from food stalls precariously positioned alongside the road, as if to reinforce where we were (as if we could forget!) and as if unseen fingers were pulling us deeper into this city. Sari-cloaked women dashed across roads, their tiny children in hand, creating a streak of mesmerising colour set against a backdrop of dirt and decomposition. For a second, I actually managed to tear my eyes away and as I glanced down at my feet, my skin left exposed in flip-flops, I noticed already that they had accumulated a decent layer of grime from the streets. Immediately however, my attention was returned to the city itself, in particular the cyclist we had hit with our taxi, who subsequently proceeded
to shout and gesticulate with our driver while impatient horns, unconcerned with such an inconsequential incident, screamed their impatience around us. Sights, sounds, smells...Kolkata throws you in at the deep end and as our apprehension began to seep away, we realised what a brilliant city this is!
Of course, not all in Kolkata is decaying. Our first day in the city (after porridge for breakfast – not had that in a very long time!) we headed west of Park St. for the British relic of Victoria Memorial. This beautiful dedication to the former Queen is magnificently constructed and set amongst cared for gardens, where one can sit, relax and enjoy this pocket of serenity seemingly a world away from the city itself. Like many manor houses and country parks in England, the building houses some interesting historical artefacts and displays a visual history of the British occupancy of Kolkata. We lingered for a while in the gardens before deciding to head back into the city.
Later that afternoon, after a delicious lunch of Masala Dosa and Bengali dessert cakes, we took the metro north to Barabazar and Old Chinatown, areas of the city where squalor, chaos and poverty
are each on display. Winding our way through the shadowy alleys, you might think it intimidating to wander in such places. However, friendly locals (particularly older guys) invited us over as they lazed around the streets and excitedly asked us to take their photographs. Perhaps they had never had their photo taken before or perhaps they just wanted to know how they looked; either way it was one of the more unexpected, peculiar and comical experiences we’ve had on our travels!
However, just as we continued to wander the streets through the chaotic crowds of the markets of the bazaars, Amy felt a pinch on her bum, her assailant making a swift but unapologetic exit into a crowd of people before she could turn and express her outrage! Until then, she had coped remarkably well with the excessive staring, and to her credit, didn’t allow the bum-squeeze to rattle her too much but I think for people coming to India, particularly women, how you deal with the staring (which is constant) will perhaps set the tone for a stay in this country. So far, we’ve managed to just laugh it off, but I think we’re not isolated in believing
that an anonymous bum squeeze is a little much – I mean he didn’t even buy her a cup of chai first!
After Barabazar, we headed over to the flower market where Hindu’s go to purchase small hibiscus flowers to use as offerings to the Gods at their homes or local temples. Awash with colour and people (I could use that description for anywhere in India pretty much!) it was an interesting insight into their religious culture, an insight we would develop much further the following day! However, to finish out our first day in Kolkata, we took a long walk, west to east, along Mahatma Gandhi Road. This amazing stretch of road, in my opinion, is an absolute must for anyone in Kolkata, as it will give you a pretty accurate microcosm of this city in the space of about 2km. Carefully avoiding oncoming Ambassador Taxis and buses, we joined the locals in actually walking in the roads as the pavements had been consumed by overspill from surrounding bazaars. Once more the soundtrack of beeping horns, the presence of cattle and the chaotic swish of colour where all on display, set against the fantastically crumbling backdrop of dilapidated
buildings. Walking along this marvellous street, I realised not only was my prior anxiety misplaced, but also that I really, really liked this city!
As previously mentioned, the following day we decided to learn a little more about the Hindu culture and so, Kolkata’s holiest place for its resident Hindu’s seemed like the ideal place to do so. After hopping off the Metro in the southern reaches of central Kolkata, we were led by a local man through numerous alleys to Kalighat where stands Kali Temple. A swarm of activity greeted us and there appeared to be some festival taking place, though I’m unsure of the occasion. What was completely unambiguous however, was the proceeding animal slaughter taking place within the temple grounds. One by one, small lambs and goats were led to a small stone stand where their heads were pinned down, their legs stretched out to make the neck taught and then an unidentified executioner lifted a washed scimitar sword high above his head before a ferocious decapitation. Amy had turned away by this point but unfortunately returned her gaze at the point where the headless body of the goat lay frantically twitching in its own blood
on the ground! It was with this blood that families of Hindus then lined up to have a single spot imprinted on their foreheads as a blessing.
After witnessing the carnage, we were led about the grounds by a ‘volunteer priest’ who after showing us the more interesting aspects of the temple, together with explaining that the meat from slain animals is used to feed the poor (apparently), he then requested a very sizeable donation (don’t they always?) in the region of 2,000 rupees (£15)! Of course, where the money goes is anyone’s guess and as we all know, no other body or person swindles money like organised religion, which together with being corrupt in of itself, has provided a playground for charlatan opportunists. It should come as no surprise therefore that only a small donation was left in the names of Amy Foster and Chris Ashton.
Speaking of organised religion, it is well known that one of Kolkata’s most enduring figures resided here for quite some time, helping those with terminal illness and providing them with some comfort in their final hours. Mother Theresa is famous the world over and her work from her Kolkata base is
well renowned. However, we decided against a visit since, as tourists, we didn’t want to be intrusive if we weren’t there as volunteers. Personally, a further reason for not wanting to see where she used to sleep etc, is the fact that, while her compassion was admirable no doubt, she also helped to undoubtedly condemn countless others to a life of misery and disease with her influential, staunch position on issues such as contraception and divorce, which she fiercely opposed, in unison with the asinine position taken by the hypocrisy she represented.
Instead we went for a cup of tea! A short taxi ride from Kalighat, we settled ourselves at Dolly’s Tea Shop, which serves a wide selection of both hot and cold teas, together with decent (though small portioned) cakes. We spent the majority of our afternoon here, enjoying our drinks and eavesdropping on the entertaining conversational style of some local Indian women, who seamlessly transitioned from Bengali to English at appropriate times.
That evening we would be departing for Darjeeling and the Himalayas; an obvious contrast to the pandemonium of Kolkata, however, it’s this mayhem that will be sorely missed but fondly remembered on our way...
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